The tsunami that struck the Tohoku coastline and triggered a catastrophic nuclear incident at Fukushima following the earthquake of March 11 last year, has, he believes, unleashed a wave of creativity within Japan, one founded on a renewed appreciation of traditional values and environmental sustainability.
"It fundamentally changed the way people look at culture and architecture, and how the two work together," Kuma says. "Ever since the big earthquake in 1923, Japanese construction has copied Western cities such as New York and London, but this recent earthquake has taught me that that kind of city is not strong enough in the face of the amazing power of nature."
He says the earthquake has changed the sort of design projects his Tokyo office takes on.
"We now try to do smaller projects - for children and elderly people, for example - and try to find projects that relate to the lives of people in the villages," says Kuma, who is renowned for contemporary designs including the Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Centre and the Nezu Museum in Tokyo. More recently, he has been collaborating on a community centre for the elderly in Rikuzentakata, a city that was almost obliterated by the tsunami. His proposed curved-wood lattice structure, inspired by the lotus leaf, will use local wood assembled by carpenters from neighbouring Kesennuma.
Kuma worked in Tohoku, the region that occupies the northeast part of Honshu Island, as a young architect in the 1990s, when building projects in Tokyo had all but dried up. He says he was deeply moved by the highly skilled craftsmen he met who "went about their work quietly and humbly, almost unnoticed". After the earthquake, concerned about the loss of such skills, he founded the East Japan Project, a collaboration between designers and traditional craft artisans. The watchword is "locality", which Kuma says encompasses everything about a place: its climate, culture, people and industry. Profits go towards teaching the next generation of artisans traditional crafts.
Chidori furniture, inspired by the joint system of an old toy that was created in the town of Hida Takayama, is an example of the East Japan Project's development initiatives. Timber sticks, made by carpenters in Tohoku, feature junction details that enable combinations of modular units to be assembled into, for example, tables or shelving, without the need for nails or metal fittings. Another product is the Naruko kokeshi bottle cap, which features a handmade wooden cap - shaped like the head of a traditional kokeshi doll - made by a craftsman in Naruko, Miyagi prefecture.
Reiko Sudo, a leading textile artist and co-founder of Tokyo-based fabric manufacturer Nuno, says she noticed that nature and the needs of local people had become more evident in the designs shown at the Good Design Awards, which she helped judge last month. Cultural and community issues have become far more significant following the earthquake, she observes: "It was a practice that we at Nuno usually follow but now I understand how important it really is."
The company, known for textiles that combine traditional aesthetics with cutting-edge computer and synthetics technologies, responded creatively to the crisis, supporting architect Shigeru Ban's modular shelters for refugees (see sidebar) by donating Eco-Circle textiles for the making of curtains.
"Refugees needed personal privacy," Sudo says. "The fabric is made entirely of 100 per cent polyester and is completely recyclable, avoiding adding to the mountains of waste already generated by the tsunami."
Encouraging creativity among residents and refugees through activities such as craftwork is very important, says Sudo.
The Ishinomaki Laboratory, in one of the worst-hit areas, is a community centre established by architect Keiji Ashizawa and others. There, the Nuno team helped teach displaced people to sew small patchwork bags from strips of fabric. The Minamisanriku Sewing Club has since sold more than 1,000 bags.
"Each bag is individually designed so it is a one of a kind," explains Sudo, who says the sewing club has even received an order from New York's Museum of Modern Art.
"After the disaster, many foreign companies and people fled Japan," says Masashi Kawamura, co-founder and creative director of multimedia firm Party and who is renowned for hyper-creative branding and advertising projects. "This made a lot of people feel that now we need to use creativity to expose our presence outside of Japan instead of waiting for the world to come to us. The design community and market here is very closed and domestic.
"I think being open, transparent and honest is more than ever a necessity for brand behaviour. So is the aspect of branding through utility, or making something that is truly useful for consumers."
Kawamura points to carmaker Honda's "Connecting Lifelines" project as a noteworthy post-disaster endeavour.
"Honda opened up its car navigation data to the public so people could visually see in real time which roads were still functioning to get to Fukushima, to transport food and other supplies. I normally don't like it when brands try to piggy-back on disasters, but this was genuine and actually helped many people."
Kawamura says he has also noticed a significant change in how people think of and use social media such as Twitter.
"It already had a huge audience, but was still thought of as a geek thing, and not as a reliable source of information. But after the earthquake, for some time Twitter was the fastest way to communicate with people because of the connection failures of phones. People really started to use social media as a creative tool out of necessity."
Social-media platforms have proved invaluable in generating sup-port for those involved in developing solutions to aid Tohoku's recovery. One of the most successful of those is PechaKucha (the name derives from the Japanese term for the sound of "chit chat"), a design event format devised by Tokyo-based Mark Dytham and Astrid Klein, of Klein Dytham Architecture, in 2003, but which has now come into its own. The concept is simple: designers are provided with a meeting space and equipment to present their work in public. To keep everything concise, they can present just 20 images and have just 20 seconds per slide to explain themselves. The time is strictly limited "because architects talk too much", says Dytham.
PechaKucha has gone global, with more than 581 cities now participating and an interactive website that is continually updated with presentations, links and information. The platform has been key for organisations such as ArchiAid, formed two days after March 11, and their efforts to help architects collaborate in rebuilding devastated areas. A group of more than 290 architects have worked with disaster victims and town officials to help draw up plans that ensure factors such as safety, sustainability and cultural heritage are taken into account.
Architects have not traditionally been involved from the first stages of rebuilding after a disaster in Japan. In this context, they are faced with unusual challenges: the shape of the land in many places is different post-disaster and laws (such as the prohibition of rebuilding homes on low-lying land) have come into effect.
Speaking at a Japan Society event, architect and ArchiAid co-founder Hitoshi Abe identified the communication of information about reconstruction plans as one of the biggest challenges facing those involved.
"It's very important to let everybody know what is happening. To evaluate it; what is good and bad about it, to encourage discussion."
PechaKucha plays a critical role in this regard, generating discussion at its events and via the internet. Its latest venture, the Inspire Japan iBook (free from iTunes), is continually updated with reports on projects from leading architects - including those from SANAA and Atelier Bow-Wow, architectural firms that presented alongside ArchiAid at recent events in Sendai and Tokyo.
Contemporary artist Aya Takano says that as its consequences continue to be felt and its impact assessed, the legacy of the earthquake will be confronted across the artistic community.
"Until I experienced the earthquake, I was living a life that was fairly pleasant," she explains, at the recent Hong Kong opening of "Heaven is Inside of You", an exhibition including several paintings inspired by the crisis. "Painting, too, was something that I could pursue according to my own sensibilities, in a way that made me feel comfortable. Ever since, however, I feel as if I have been forced to make some changes at a very fundamental level."
The artist, who creates manga books, paints and writes science-fiction novels, belongs to the Kaikai Kiki studio, founded by Takashi Murakami in 2001, and has long been renowned for a playful, futur-istic style.
"Before [the tragedy], I thought everything was great in the city and that just enjoying life was a good thing," says Takano. "Now I have changed. I stopped eating meat and fish, and feel more aware that we shouldn't put as much importance on material things or success."
She also changed paint: "Acrylic felt too artificial so now I use oil paints, which feel more natural and sensual. I also prefer to draw flowers, trees and water - even the people I draw are more natural now.
"I think the images we created after the disaster are special ones that could only have come from such a chaotic time. They show the path down which Japan has come and the future to which it is moving."
After visiting the devastated area, the artist says, a remembered scene of young children playing happily on a beach particularly inspired her, especially as there were still enormous mounds of tsunami debris nearby.
"It was so calm, like a very beautiful scene from heaven, but also like science fiction after a nuclear war. It didn't look real. Everything was bright. I really wanted to paint this … thinking maybe they can make a new world with a better relationship with nature and without nuclear problems."
Mark Dytham will present a PechaKucha Night on Wednesday at the XXX Gallery, Fui Nam Building, 212 Wing Lok Street,Sheung Wan (for details, go to pecha-kucha.org/night/hong-kong/13 and give a presentation at the Business of Design Week on Saturday (see www.bodw.com.hk Aya Takano's exhibition, "Heaven is Inside You", can be seen at Galerie Perrotin (50 Connaught Road, Central, tel: 3758 2180) until December 29.
TEMPORARY SHELTER - BOXING CLEVER
Shigeru Ban is renowned for the innovative use of paper in architectural humanitarian work, particularly of recycled cardboard, which he describes as being of "accidental environmental interest".
After the March 11 earthquake in Japan, Ban was one of the first to respond to the need for temporary housing, and came up with the idea of using simple curtains hung on cardboard rods to separate individual families.
He has since created temporary multi-storey housing at Onagawa - one of the towns worst hit by the tsunami - from shipping containers, devising highly efficient interiors. Cupboards and shelving donated by companies such as Muji provide storage space and keep living spaces open.
The designer says there simply wasn't enough land for standard-issue, single-storey solutions. The complex of nine buildings containing 189 residential units with open space for a covered market and community activities went up in just three months. The accommodation will be dismantled once permanent houses are built, then rebuilt whenever and wherever necessary.